from the novel The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto
'Great' conductors, like 'great' actors, soon become unable to
play anything except themselves.
Beatrice had seen the weather forecast before she went to bed that night. The good luck they'd had with a cool July was about to run out.
The air-conditioner in the ‘Cinsin’ Theatre still hadn't been fixed. To be sure, it was about to. Mrs. Holly had a combination electrician-handyman; both of her enormous mansions required a full-time man. She volunteered him, and sent this Miracle Man over to the theatre to fix everything. Mrs. Holly dubbed the man "A Perfect Treasure." Unfortunately, he also only spoke Portuguese, except for an occasional "yes" and "hallo." Ben was going to have to be the interpreter if there were any problems.
Beatrice put her sweater back on the coat rack when she felt the warm air. She spent her walk mulling over Klipop and his wife's behavior the previous night. She wondered what the famous conductor would make of their group. Well, if he didn't like them, he’d just have to lump it. She walked faster as her ire rose; if the concert didn't sell out, the money the orchestra was paying for Klipop's appearance at the benefit might have to be taken out of next year's budget. Damnation.
She turned the corner and saw a few men huddled near one of the theatre's side exits. Colin, the elderly man who ran the Cincinnati theatre, was one of them. Alongside him were Michael, Derek, and Mark; the four men's expression was grim. After greeting them, Beatrice launched into what she guessed was the problem.
"Air-conditioning is out. Yes? Thought as much. Are we going to get it fixed by tomorrow morning?"
"Tomorrow noon," Colin answered. I have a promise from Alonz --Alfre-- Abraco -- oh, whatever the hell his name is."
"Do you speak Portuguese?" Bea asked.
"Of course not. I telephoned Ben, and he served as interpreter."
"Did you ask Ben to ask him if he's going to be hammering away all day, crashing around up in the ceiling? Von Klipop won't like that."
"It doesn't matter: Klipop won't like whatever we're doing today," Derek interrupted her. "He keeps our rehearsal hall in Boston at sixty degrees. The man can't stand warm weather. If the temperature goes above 75, look out for squalls."
"Great," Beatrice muttered. "We're supposed to hit ninety this afternoon."
Michael interposed, "This guy Alfonzo --that's his name, folks, please remember it-- isn't going to be upstairs. He'll be underneath the theatre, under the stage. He's fixing the vents. He shouldn't cause much of a ruckus down there. Ben said he's also fixing the wiring so it shouldn't be too noisy."
"Beatrice," Mark interrupted. "Do you have the parts ready? Derek tells me that Klipop wants me to warm up the orchestra for a half-hour."
"That's a nice liberty he's taking," she snorted. She put down her violin case and searched in her valise for the scores. They were in a eleven-by-fourteen plastic container and she handed them over. "If we're paying Von Bigwig as much to appear here as we'll supposedly make on the Benefit, he ought to be waving a stick the moment he walks into the theatre."
"Calm down, Beatrice!" Mark said, in a rare show of anger. "It's going to be a long day. He wants to sit in various parts of the theatre and judge the acoustics. Says he wants to shade the performance to the surroundings. It's not a bad idea."
"It isn't," Michael agreed. "Mark, why don't you do that from time to time?"
"Because it's difficult," Mark explained patiently, "to conduct an orchestra from the balcony." Beatrice remarked that she wasn't being the only testy one. She was about to go in, when Colin grabbed her by the arm. "I'm really sorry about the space not being ready, Bea," he apologized. "I can't really tell when the old vents are going. We just don't have the money to replace them right now." She patted his arm. "Don't sweat it, Colin. Sorry, bad choice of words. I know the concert means as much to your theatre as it does to the orchestra. I still owe you: I promised I'd take photographs of those murals above the stage."
Colin smiled. "Don't sweat it, Beatrice," he said. "Do it whenever you can. I'll still be grateful for it."
For the first half-hour, Mark rehearsed Schubert's Sixth, known as the "Little", though it was as long as some of the composer's other symphonies. Klipop was seen wandering around the house, sitting in various parts of the hall, once up on the balcony. After the first break, he took the baton from Mark, and, greeting the players perfunctorily, said, "We will start on the Scherzo, please."
He raised the baton, but someone caught his eye, and Von Klipop as quickly put his hand down. "Goot heavens," he exclaimed, "You. You, in the violas. Is that Ben Faizmão I see in front of me, who used to play …violin?"
All eyes turned towards Ben. They noticed that he was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. But he raised his eyes and managed a weak smile. "Hello, Maestro. How's success treating you?"
"Very well, thank you, Ben. And how is failure treating you?" returned Klipop to the violas, and immediately he raised his baton and made the first downbeat.
Of course, no one was ready to begin.
Klipop stopped, lowered his hands, and set the baton down testily; it made a loud clanging sound on the metal stand.
Mark, seated in the fourth row of the house with a copy of the score in his lap, knew this old trick well. It was almost a cliché. As a guest conductor, you come on and jump-start before anyone else is ready. Then you make an angry scene and pretend that the players are slow and lazy. He watched intently to see how his group would react.
Klipop had his eyes on the score. He opened his mouth and seemed about to give a lecture about how a professional orchestra should be ready when he was, when he looked up, and caught Ben's knowing expression. He looked around and saw a few of the older players' faces.
There were traces of smiles here and there, but the cold glint in their eyes bore back into him. Klipop immediately knew that none of his more habitual games in humiliation would go over with this lot; at least, not that morning. He slammed his mouth shut and raised his baton for the first downbeat. Again. This time the players joined him.
The rehearsal proceeded with the famous conductor making grunting noises as he waved his stick, sounds that might be either approval or disdain. Neither he nor the orchestra was going to start a confrontation this early. Only once did he break his concentration, and looked around behind him, nodding as more doors were opened on either side of the theatre. They did let more air in; but the temperature was beginning to rise outdoors as well as inside. It was only a matter of time before Someone had a temper tantrum.
After a half-hour, during which Klipop administered several remarks to the strings that could be taken either as good advice or veiled insults, the whole orchestra, and Mark in the fourth row, noticed that the ensemble was, in fact, playing better than usual. One or two of the players looked out into the house to see how their permanent conductor was taking it.
Mark took it well. He was aware that a mendacious conductor can get any orchestra to play better than they usually do … for a short time. But if the conductor kept it up, playing increasingly nasty games, sooner or later there would be a reaction. The group would continue to play at a highly professional level, but the spirit behind the music would sicken and die. The Videntians hadn't gotten to this point.
Mark was ruminating on this when Mary sat down next to him and whispered, "Well, at least it sounds good." Mark nodded absently. Mary asked him if he was jealous. He opened his mouth, paused, and then shut it again.
She looked at him. "No; you're not. I can see you're not." Mark smiled, and spilled his thoughts about what he thought Klipop was up to. Mary's eyebrows went up; she looked over and watched the stage for a moment, her face a study. Then she whispered, "Beatrice told me last night that his life's been threatened. So that attack in Boston wasn't the first time, I guess."
Mark put a silencing finger to his mouth. She was undeterred and continued, "Well, I certainly wouldn't want to be married to a Great Conductor who has to put his life on the line; I suppose it's only great, important conductors that get their lives threatened …"
Mark gave her a gentle punch on the shoulder. She let out a laugh, and Mark put his hand over her mouth, which she couldn't help giggling through. The noise prompted The Great Klipop to look around quickly and glare at the house. The two of them froze for a moment, caught like naughty children; then, when Klipop turned back to the orchestra, Mary put her head on her husband's shoulder. The administrative paperwork they had both been planning to work on slipped to the floor.
Before the orchestra went on to the second movement of the symphony, Colin, the theatre-owner, unwittingly lit the match to the fuse. He heavily climbed the stairs behind the conductor, and apologetically approached Klipop, who was turning pages in the score. Colin asked with a half-bow, "if the Maestro would like to have an electric fan set up nearby to cool him down? I have one ready…"
That's all it took. Klipop slowly looked over to the old gentleman, who over the past decade managed to appease any number of perennially unhappy rock groups that played in his theatre.
The eminent conductor then turned the full force of his anger on the poor man. "Idiot!" he screamed and let loose a string of Teutonic words which didn't sound particularly complimentary. He bellowed, "So!! You set up the fan near me, pretending that it is to do me good, and keep me cool? And instead it is a disaster, it blows all my music papers all over the stage? I know your game! I know it! You see that I am the famous and want to embarrass me, make me look like the stupid that you are, hah?" He waved his arms in the air. "You are against me as well, like all the mediocrities! I spit on your attempts to placate, because they are not so, they are the real thing to make me look the fool!"
Colin, crushed, turned and walked down the steps, but a few players heard him muttering, "Man, you don't need my help to do that."
Beatrice, inwardly seething, got up from her seat, and firmly put her violin down on it. She made sure she made enough noise for Klipop to notice; he had gone back to pretending to look over a passage in his score. He was really watching her out of the corner of his eye.
She swiftly descended the steps behind Klipop, and went to talk to Colin, who was sulking in one of the house seats; she knew the orchestra was trying to guess what she was telling him. Mouthing a few consoling platitudes, she smiled and patted Colin on the shoulder; then, with a tight smile, she quickly bounced back up the stairs. For good measure she dropped her bow "accidentally" as she picked up her violin, and sweetly chirped a loud "excuse me!" to Klipop. He scarcely nodded as she demurely resumed her seat and turned a page on her music stand.
Klipop realized he was losing control of the group when several string players quietly applauded her with their bows.
There was a twenty-minute break at eleven. Tom was the third flutist needed in the Berlioz, and he walked up to the stage armed with his Boehm flute in one hand and a metal chair in the other. He hadn't been able to change in time, and there were amused glances as he mounted the stairs, still in his policeman's uniform.
Klipop jumped half a foot when he saw him.
"Who are you?" he asked, plainly disturbed.
"Third flutist. Name of Tom Griffes." He took a step forward and hastened to explain. "I didn't think you needed me in the Schubert, so I just came in now for the --"
"You should be here all the time," Klipop said sternly.
"I was on duty this morning."
"A … policeman you are?"
"Not anymore. The precinct’s short by one on Tuesday mornings, just through July --lots of folks on vacation-- so I fill in for a few hours."
"Ah, I see," Klipop relented. He leaned forward and shook Tom's hand, "I thought that you might be, that you might be from the … well. Never mind." He smiled and motioned towards the winds. "Please. To sit. By the way," he stopped Tom, "I am sure haff many juicy murders that you haff gone through to tell about me afters."
Klipop's knowing grin was not returned. "I've seen a few, but none I enjoy recalling," Tom responded, and backed away. If Klipop was our permanent conductor, Tom thought, I'd be talking about my police work all the time. Thank God he's only here for a week.
Tom noticed Beatrice furiously rubbing something on her music stand with her eraser. She was giving it the works and there was a loud metal nattering-sound at the base. Something was up.
He crept over and whispered, "Has it been hell on wheels this morning, Honey Chile?"
"I'll erase that smile right off your face," she snarled back. "It's been hell in a sidecar with chocolate jimmies and a lobster bib. The heat goes up, and Klipop blows up with it, apparently."
Tom had been preoccupied about getting ready. Now he looked around and saw that, despite the heat, the atmosphere of the place was frigid if not glacial. The usual dirty jokes were being replaced by dirty looks, all aimed at one central character. The central character, of course, affected not to notice.
"Do you think it would help things along if I …" and Tom whispered something in Beatrice's ear. Her whole face, previously a chronicle of misery, lit up. "Do you think we could?" she asked. "Could you arrange it by lunch break? That's at one-thirty." Tom nodded, and said, "I've got my cell phone with me. They'll give me a break, considering I stopped a break-in at their store two weeks ago. They owe me." He went to his space, set up his chair, and started dialing a number on his phone.
A moment later a baton clicked impatiently on the podium. Mark, looking up from his administrative paperwork, saw some of the players flinch at the noise. All the more reason, he thought, for a conductor to use a wooden stand. Klipop obviously used this metallic sound to choke-collar his wayward charges.
Once the orchestra got used to Klipop's level of expectations, and he got used to their level of delivery, the second half of the morning's rehearsal went more smoothly. It became clear to the some of the players that Klipop really did need cool air to do his best, and his irritation was not really directed at them. Other players regarded him as an over-rated self-regarding pompous ass. Yet even they were eventually won over by his clear, steady beat.
He rightly praised a difficult passage in thirds from the clarinets that had gone especially smoothly; it was his first praise of the day. Unfortunately, just before lunch, the old couple that made up the pair of bassoons stumbled over a simple set of chords.
It had been a long morning, and the players' nervous energy was beginning to turn into nervous exhaustion. Klipop held his temper, but everyone knew another storm would break after lunch.
The break, which was for an hour, saw many of the players heading towards Joe's Diner next door. Beatrice stayed behind to double-check on the bowings with Klipop. At one point, he idly put her hand on her shoulder, and she let it stay there. He growled assent at most of the markings she'd pointed out, with an occasional word of explanation as to why he'd marked it that way. It became obvious to her that at some point he had once played a string instrument.
He nodded approval at her suggestions, as he put some notes he'd made in a well-worn brown valise near his stand. "I was a violinist at one time, you know."
"No, I didn't know. But I did guess."
"Is it Joe's? I haff hear someone mention the place." He saw her surprise and said, "I know, you think I only like haughty cuisine, but I would just like to get something to drink. Come, I walk you there." They went down the steps and started walking to the theatre exit. She expected the conversation to continue, but he seemed to be reverting to his own thoughts as they walked.
Joe's was buzzing, with the players at various tables, and others waiting at the counter for their orders. The talk died down to a whisper as soon as Bea and Klipop made their entrance. The players parted like The Red Sea Before Moses as the two approached Will, who looked amused at the effect the conductor was having on the usual egotists surrounding him. Tom was among the group, waiting for a tuna sandwich to bring back.
"Water," Klipop said, as if he were bestowing a benediction.
"Certainly, sir," Will said, handing him a bottle. "No charge." Klipop nodded, as if this was customary and expected. His imperious nose sniffed the air suspiciously and he turned to the younger man. "Is that the herb rosemary that I smell?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. It's our new Belgian Fries."
"Belgian?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes, sir. French Fries, with rosemary and thyme put in the cooking oil."
Will swiftly took some out of a basket behind him, and set them firmly on a plate before the conductor. Klipop's hand hesitated for the fraction of a second before he fingered one of them, put the potato slice across his nose as if smelling a cigar, and chomped into it. He instantly broke into a smile and his eyes glazed over. "My mother, it reminds me of. She made onions and rosemaries with the potatoes, and it was forty years ago." He seemed to be elsewhere for a moment, and Beatrice heard Tom whisper in her ear, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach." She smiled and whispered back, "Put a sign in the window: Just like Klipop's mother used to make."
Klipop was still lost in the past. "It was like, you know, the Madeline dipped in tea. This reminds me so much of my mother. I see an image of her, just now, floating before me like a ghost."
Will smiled affably, obviously not understanding. "That's fantastic! I believe in ghosts, too," he said.
Klipop nodded and seemed to take Beatrice into the two men's conversation. "When I was second violin in the college at Mannheim," he reminisced, "my Quartet was once playing the Death and the Maiden by the great Franz Schubert. And we feels a fifth presence, on the stage, just as if it is hovering-like above us ..."
Will stopped his putting a salad container into a paper bag and stared wide-eyed at the conductor. "No. Really?"
"-- and afterwards," Klipop continued, with undue reverence, "the old professor who was the 'cellist, he say to us, 'Did you feel him there'?" The conductor put his hand on Will's arm and his voice went all Transylvanian. "Perhaps it was the ghost of Schubert; but perhaps too, it was the ghost of a string player in the theatre that had like Schubert. We know that one has hung himself in the theatre's dressing rooms many years before, after an unhappy love affair. Very sad."
"Wow," Will whispered.
"You see what you lose by not listening to classical music, Will?" Beatrice laughed. She looked at her watch. Time was getting on, and she gently steered Klipop out of the diner; Tom followed behind them, eavesdropping. Behind them the sound of conversation reverted to normal.
Beatrice asked him as they headed into the theatre, "Did you really feel a fifth presence the night you played that quartet?"
The conductor looked at her for a long moment, and then laughed out loud. "No, of course not, my dear," he said, patting her on the back. "But I know a credulous man when I see one."
As the two walked down to the stage, Klipop's pace slowed. He saw, on either side of the steps that led to the stage, two long portable tables set up. On them were set out several dozen squat paper cups, and in them was a hard little knob of something that was deeply dark purple.
Klipop eyed it suspiciously. "What it is?"
"Just before Tom was promoted from policeman to detective," Beatrice explained, "he prevented a break-in at an ice-cream store two months back. It's a marvelous store; they make it all themselves. They said they owed him a favor, because he was off-duty at the time. I knew with the heat today this would be appreciated..."
Klipop gave the cups of ice-cream a dubious, catlike inspection. "They're Blackberry Sherbets," she explained to him. "Very light. No corn syrup in them at all. One of the oboists told me it's the only dessert that doesn't gunk up his reeds." Klipop nodded; he picked up one of the cups and dipped in. He wandered away as the rest of the orchestra lined up before everything melted. The next few minutes passed in relaxed conversations as the players sat in various parts of the house. Including Klipop and Tom, two seats apart.
"Mr. Tom?" Klipop asked, turning to him from his seat.
"You are much more like a Mister Tom," Klipop answered, as if this was a compliment. "I must get some of this blackberry-ice to Boston; is like Italian Ice, not heavy. And now, please to tell me about all the murders you see."
Tom wasn't fazed in the least by this sudden turn in the conversation. "Videntia's no different than most American cities, sir," he explained. "The number of gunfights rose as the number of fistfights fell..."
"But you are not he-man," Klipop interrupted as he looked down on Tom, "You are, like, floppy. Short. Jewish?"
"Half-Jewish. And if you don’t mind," Tom bowed from his seat, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
"Tom's not so floppy," Mary interrupted. She had sneaked into a chair behind them with a cup of her own before the sherbet was all gone. "He saved two lives in a fire; he's very modest about it."
"Three lives," Tom corrected her.
Klipop looked interested. "And were there many ... painful deaths?"
"I'm afraid not."
Klipop gave a disappointed shrug. He finished fingering the cup of sherbet and threw it behind him, narrowly missing Mary. "Vacation is done," he said, and got up. He then surprised everyone by jumping the four feet from his chair in the front row to the stage. He turned around in vexation. "But is not Purgatory in here. Is now hell. Are there not any more doors to be opened?"
Derek, Klipop's assistant, spoke up from the back. "I'm afraid that all the side doors are open, sir."
"Then open all the front doors."
"But someone might wander in."
"After hearing us for jost five minutes," Klipop answered, "they will wander out again." By his standards, this was a very slight dig.
As they were tuning up, Mary noticed that the players were now wearing the defensive masks of people who did what they were told because they were paid to. She also noted, with more satisfaction than she could admit, that Klipop's hectoring was slowly reversing the good work he'd achieved before lunch had been called. Mark was right. A guest conductor's abuse, no matter how great his reputation, made the players glad they only had to endure him for a short time.
As the afternoon wore on, the Great Man lost much of the good grace he had mustered at lunch, and began to use all his old tricks to undermine the orchestra's morale.
He snarled rudely at Seth after his entry, "Oh, no, no. This will not do. What kind of make is your double-u-bass, sir?" and shook his head in disgust before receiving the answer. This was too much for Seth. He’d been a star quarterback in college and still took no nonsense from anyone. As Klipop was about to give the next downbeat, Seth spoke up, "Oh, no, no. That will not do. What kind of make is your baton …sir?"
This stopped Klipop in his tracks. Then he smiled; clearly this comeback was not new to him. "This is a famous baton," he explained, as if to a particularly thick-headed dog. "Do you see how the tip of it is the purest white, and how it fades into dark red at the bottom? This was the baton, the "Baton Rouge" as I with-jokingly call it, of the great conductor Glowenschmertz, of the Studdenbakkeropper house of Meinz-Ketchopp. His daughter, she haff give it to me."
"And what did you have to give her?" Seth shot back.
Klipop whispered, "I will tell you, privately, somm other time." There was some tittering from the men in the winds.
Defused by this exchange, the rehearsal ended an hour later.
Mary warily went down into the dressing rooms, and could tell the minute she hit the bottom step that Klipop's behavior had rankled the older players. Ostensibly there to talk business with of them, she really wanted to listen in on what the rest were saying. What she heard confirmed her own feelings.
Mark followed her, tripping lightly down the stairs. It had been a productive afternoon for them both. Armed with piles of files and a laptop computer, he and Mary had managed to plow through a goodly bit of paperwork while sitting up in the balcony. Still, the round of applause that greeted him when he entered the larger dressing room surprised him. It was obviously less for him than a signal of their intense dislike of Klipop.
Johnson, one of the older and more outspoken viola players, was yelling at him, "Clang, clang, clang!"
"I hoped never to hear that sound again, Mark. When you want us to stop, you just stop conducting, and wait for us to stop as well. That's humane. But Klipop's rat-a-tat sound's one reason I left New York orchestras."
"Take it easy, John," Mark soothed him. "You won't have to hear it after Saturday. Just four days away."
"I'd better not. Don't you pick up any nasty habits from him."
"He won't," Mary weighed in, and three people laughed.
"Folks," Mark cut in, "You were great this morning, and, well, most of this afternoon..." he waited for the groans to subside. "Okay, no, listen: Don't let him get to you. Whatever happened this morning, you were playing better than you play for me. Honestly."
The room became strangely silent. The players suddenly took on an odd look of embarrassment, but Mark plowed on, "Klipop's tricks work with players who are paid enough to take it. Just use any anger that you feel and channel it into the music. Use the time this week to realize how lucky you are that you're not in ... Boston..."
There was a gasp in the room, and Mark turned around. Klipop was right behind him, staring at him, with his head cocked to one side, listening. He seemed more interested than angry.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.